As a former Hamiltonian, I have watched with interest Hamilton struggle to cling on to its status as one of the top 10 cities in Canada. Like Pittsburg, Buffalo and other cities in the North American Rust Belt, Hamilton has had to reinvent itself. It is no longer the “ambitious city” (a former moniker)! Similarly its status as a “steeltown” has long disappeared with its now more diversified employment base.
James Street, one of the oldest streets in Canada, has a history, which dates back to the early 1800s. It was home to Hamilton’s first department store (Right House, 1893) and first skyscraper (Piggott Building, 1929, 18 floors). Lister Block, the first indoor mall in Canada, was built in 1886, burned down in 1923, was rebuilt in 1924 and in 2011, was restored to its early 20th century charm.
James Street is also home to Lloyd D Jackson Square, a mega downtown indoor mall built in 1972. It includes a public square on top that never really worked. The mall was part of a major downtown renewal project that includes a theatre, civic art gallery, convention center, arena, central library and farmers’ market – basically everything an urban planners and developers at the time thought was needed to revitalize the Downtown. The thought was downtowns needed an downtown indoor shopping mall to compete with the suburban malls - Calgary built TD Square in 1977, Edmonton built, its City Centre Place in 1974 and Winnipeg built Portage Place in 1987.
Forty years later, Hamilton’s downtown, not unlike Winnipeg’s and Edmonton’s still struggles to become the vibrant live, work and play places they were in the ‘50s. Lesson – Urban vitality is an art not a science!
James Street North: A Hidden Gem
However, an area just north of the “super blocks,” once called “Little Portugal” now branded as James Street North (JSN) that is becoming very attractive to indie artists in many different disciplines from across southern Ontario. JSN, a seven block district, extending from Wilson to Murray Street, consists of early 20th century, low-rise brick buildings that are ideal for low rent street level retail, restaurants and cafes with studios and apartments above. The street retains its historical authenticity architecturally and culturally with several Portugal-based restaurants, pubs and shops in operation.
JSN is a Jane Jacobs urban village with a diversity of buildings, activities and people and its mixture of local pubs, clubs, cafes, bistros and shops. There is no Tim Horton’s, Starbucks or Lululemon. What there is is a new energy with the opening of the Art Gallery of Hamilton Shop and Annex, as well as CBC Hamilton studios. C
Initiated in 2009, Supercrawl built on the popularity of JSN second Friday art crawls. It has quickly grown from a one-day street festival into a major two-day arts festival attracting 80,000 people in 2012. The 2013 event September 13 and 14th will expand yet again to include waterfront concerts at Pier 8 at the end of James Street on the waterfront.
Supercrawl organizers have announced that this year's free musical acts will include Said The Whale, Chelsea Light Moving (with Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth), Young Rival, Joel Plaskett Emergency, Steve Strongman, Yo La Tengo, Sandro Perri, the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra and 2009 Polaris Prize winners F***ed UP.
If you are in the Hamilton area and are interested in art and architecture, don’t just drive by. Drive into the Downtown and check out James Street North. Take a walk back in time. JSN should be on the radar of anyone who is into urban exploring, art, architecture and flaneuring.
Below are just a few teasers. If you like this article you might like the blog: "Cities of Opportunities"